A Few Misconceptions about the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers

This is not a political blog. But Gordon S. Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution is a political book in its resonances. Both Right and Left in American politics make gestures back to the American Revolution, use it and the Founding Fathers in debates about what America was, is, and should be.

As to the Left side of the debate and their use of this history, I have no intent to point out their factual and interpretive errors. Plenty of people have done that and do it better than I could.

But I would like to keep my fellow conservatives honest. (And I realize that there are many types of conservatives unified only by …. well, what exactly does unify all American conservatives?)

However, here are three areas where historical reality conflicts with political misconceptions. (Page citations are for the 1991 Knopf edition of Wood’s book.)

  1. Government should be run like a business by businessmen. Well, no. The republic to be built after the Revolution was to be governed by “men of genius and leisure” (p. 104). They were to be disinterested men not bound to anyone, including customers, for their livelihood.  Jefferson’s idea of a republic of yeoman farmers was because farmers were, as he said, reliant only “on their own soil and industry” and not “the casualties and caprice of customers” (p. 106) In fact, Nathaniel Greene spoke for many when casting a wary eye on competent men in general: “Men of great talents by nature and polish by Art” were “the most dangerous persons to be connected” with government unless they “steadily persevere in the practice of Virtue” (p. 108). Of course, the obvious rejoinder to the idea that only men who live on the rental of land (and, in practice, frequently by interest from loans too) have the proper amount of “disinterest” is that they do have economic interests too. Indeed, that very argument was a formative event with the 1786 rechartering of the Bank of North America by the Pennsylvania legislature, in the movement away from the unrealized republican ideals of the revolutionaries and to eventual American democracy (p. 256). Chartering that movement is one of the main accomplishments of Wood’s book.
  2. Men of common education can serve in government. That virtue that Greene wanted was generally thought to be only the product of a liberal education. But it had to be of a man who had no occupation. Indeed, having an occupation meant, of course, you had to work for a living and had “no leisure for public service” (p.107). A pass was given to men of the liberal occupations: doctors and clergymen. Lawyers were a more problematic case. There was an argument over whether lawyers practiced a “grovelling, mercenary trade” (p.107) which disqualified them despite their education or whether they could govern if they weren’t too needful of those professional fees.
  3. Americans are always grateful — unlike France. Americans since World War II love to mock France’s military prowess. Opting out of NATO didn’t help their image in America. By the time they announced that, no, we aren’t helping you with the Second Iraq War, they were all cowards in our eyes. (Some remedial reading in that area would be histories of the Battles of the Marne or Verdun to say nothing of Napoleonic France.) Ungrateful wretches, we muttered, and after all we did for them during two wars. “Liberty fries” became “French fries”. We even got John J. Miller and Mark Molesky’s Our Oldest Enemy: A History of America’s Disastrous Relationship with France which reminded us France was only pretending to be our ally in the Revolution, that they were just using us. A Gallic shrug, and a “Nations do not have friends, messieurs,” might be the French response. Something like that was the American response. From p. 267:

All the talk of affection and benevolence between people and nations many Federalists now dismissed as sentimental claptrap. Calls in the Senate for expressions of gratitude for France’s contributions to America’s independence were shouted down. “Nothing but interest,” it was said, “governed all nations.” Hamilton acknowledged that gratitude might exist between individuals, as the emotional response of a person to a benevolent and disinterested service; but nations acted only out of self-interest.

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